Marlen Esparza knew it by a different name. An iconic name.
It didn’t matter that Julio Cesar Chavez was not fighting in every bout she watched with her father. To her, boxing was “Chavez.”
“Every time they saw a boxing match, they said, ‘Oh, Chavez is on!’” David Esparza says of his four children, including his youngest daughter, Marlen. “They thought boxing was called Chavez until they figured out we were talking about a certain person.”
“Chavez” was more than just Marlen’s introduction the sport that has made her an Olympian. It was the bonding agent between her and her father.
So when a Telemundo interviewer a few months ago showed her a video message Chavez made for her, her father puffed with pride.
“He was my hero in boxing,” her father says. “It was something unbelievable for me, like, ‘Gosh, really, we made it that far?’”
The self-described “Daddy’s girl” has made it all the way to the Olympic Games. Esparza, a 23-year-old Houston native, is one of the three U.S. women competing in London in the Olympic debut of women’s boxing.
“It feels like a bad Christmas, like when you’re young and you know you have to wait all night to wake up and get your presents,” Esparza says. “It’s a good feeling because you know you have something coming, but it’s a bad feeling because you know you have this wait and it’s a tension.”
The wait is nearly over. The early rounds in Esparza’s weight class (flyweight, 112 pounds) begin Sunday. Medal bouts are Thursday.
David Esparza, who grew up in Juarez, Mexico, loved watching boxing with his daughter. But he had no idea someday he would be watching her in the ring.
“I’m an old-fashioned boxing guy,” he says. “We really didn’t believe in women boxing. We didn’t really support women boxing, because it was like, well, women are not supposed to be boxing.”
He encouraged his two sons, one older and one younger than Marlen, to take up boxing after a gym opened near their home. Her older brother wasn’t interested, but her younger brother was.
Marlen, then 11, convinced her father to let her go to the gym as a babysitter.
“It was my responsibility to watch my brother, but I could box too,” she says.
She then had to convince trainer Rudy Silva to work with her.
“I was in a circle throwing jabs, and I was like, this isn’t what I thought in my mind,” she says. “I thought I was going to get in the ring and start hitting people. And he was training guys that were actually boxing, like what I would see on TV.
She approached Silva and said: “If you’ll train me, then I’ll be good.”
True to her word, she went undefeated through her first two years of competition. With Silva still as her trainer, she’s won six straight national titles since 2006. She won bronze at the 2006 world championships.
“When we first started watching Marlen boxing, it kind of surprised us, how she could be so dedicated, so brave and explosive,” her father says. “What we saw was that whenever we (entered) Marlen (in a tournament), it was like there was no competition. Marlen was way ahead of all the girls.”
Her father was sold.
“I think the hardest part was actually letting me in the gym. Then after that, he was all for it,” Esparza says.
He became her biggest fan and financial supporter, working overtime and weekends as a welding supervisor at chemical refineries to pay for her training and competition expenses.
“Since she won her first national title, she set her mind to make it to the end,” David Esparza says. “So we’ve been working together as a team -- the coach, her and me – we’ve been working at it all these years.”
By happenstance, he has never seen his daughter lose in person. He attends plenty of her fights, but she has lost only twice in U.S. bouts, and neither time was he there. The rest of her losses were at international tournaments.
He is planning to be at her Olympic fights, with Marlen’s mom, Carmen, to whom he is no longer married, and Marlen’s older sister, Dalila.
“I’m getting real nervous about it, because this is the final step and I have to be there to support her,” he says. “Right now it’s getting to a point where I can’t even sleep at night.”
No doubt the memories of watching Chavez with his little girl will come flooding in when he sees her enter the Olympic ring. No doubt the message Chavez sent, telling Esparza how proud he was of her and wishing her good luck at the Olympics, will replay in his mind.
In addition to the video message, Chavez sent her a signed pair of boxing gloves. Her father has plans to display them. Esparza says she would give them as much prominence as an Olympic gold.
“For sure,” Esparza says, “because that’s where it started.”
Vicki Michaelis, who covered the past six Olympic Games as USA TODAY’s lead Olympics writer, is the Carmical Distinguished Professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia.